50 facts about food insecurity in America

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December 16, 2020
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50 facts about food insecurity in America

COVID-19 has impacted nearly every American, but some have fared worse than others. Many people now face the immediate question of how to put food on the table this week.

Nearly one in four households across the United States faced food insecurity, or lack of consistent funds for food, in 2020—more than double the rate in 2019. By late November, approximately 26 million Americans said they did not have enough food; upper estimates predict some 54 million people nationwide, including 18 million kids, could be food insecure by the end of the year. As more people have turned to food pantries and other charitable organizations to help feed their families, wait times can be hours long and resources can be stretched to their limits, forcing many people to go home empty-handed. The dire situation has even caused some people to steal food from supermarkets to make ends meet.

To understand how food access is affecting Americans, Stacker compiled a list of 50 food insecurity facts. Our information comes from the country's largest anti-hunger organization, Feeding America, as well as No Kid Hungry, universities, scientific journals, Census Bureau data, and other sources. Throughout the piece, the phrase "food insecurity" is used distinctly from the term "hunger," which for these purposes refers to the physical discomfort or state of being brought about from a lack of food as per USDA terminology.

If you’re having trouble finding enough to eat, get in touch with a food pantry or soup kitchen in your community. These organizations can offer direct help with groceries, hot meals, and other essentials. Government programs such as SNAP and WIC can also help with financial support for purchasing food on your own.

And if you’re in the position to help others, consider making a financial donation to a local or national food bank. While many people often donate food or supplies, monetary contributions can make a bigger difference by going toward bulk purchases at substantial discounts.

Keep reading to better understand the current state of food insecurity in the United States.

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Food insecurity was in decline before the pandemic

Around 13.7 million households, or 35 million people, faced food insecurity in 2019. That figure included more than 10 million children. Despite the number sounding high, food insecurity was in fact at its lowest rate since the Great Depression.

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More people are at risk of food insecurity during the pandemic

Amid the economic devastation of the pandemic, more than 50 million people in the United States are at risk of food insecurity in 2020, per Feeding America. The number of kids who may experience food insecurity is also up by 7 million.

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Food banks are distributing more meals

Families facing food insecurity during the pandemic have increasingly turned to food banks for support. Feeding America reports that food banks across the country gave out 4.2 billion meals between March and October. With demand so high, Feeding America predicted a potential eight-billion-meal shortfall between October 2020 and October 2021.

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There are two categories of food insecurity

The United States Department of Agriculture uses two categories to determine food insecurity in a household. “Low food security” means that the household has experienced negative changes in their diet, such as reduced quality or variety of food. “Very low food insecurity” has to do with disrupted eating patterns and lower amounts of food eaten by a given family.

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A quarter of American families with children don’t have consistent access to food

A July 2020 report from the Brookings Institution found that 27.5% of households with children are food insecure. In around two-thirds of these families, the researchers found evidence of children facing food insecurity.

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Food insecurity increases the risk of chronic disease

A 2017 report from the USDA found a connection between food insecurity and chronic diseases, such as heart disease, hepatitis, diabetes, arthritis, and cancer. Its data showed that people with very low food security were nearly 53% more likely to have a chronic illness.

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Almost half of rural Native American communities lack food security

Johns Hopkins’ Center for American Indian Health estimates that up to 40% of people in rural tribal communities deal with food and water insecurity. More than 80% of the kids in these communities also get their breakfast and lunch from schools, many of which have been closed during the pandemic.

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Food insecurity rates are highest in Mississippi

Mississippi has the highest rate of food insecurity, with some 18.1% of adults living in households that sometimes or often didn’t have enough to eat in the previous week, according to the Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey conducted Nov. 11–23. Other states with high rates of food insecurity that week included South Carolina, Florida, Alabama, and Arkansas.

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Vermont has the lowest rates of food insecurity

The Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey, conducted Nov. 11-Nov. 23, found that Vermont has the lowest rates of food insecurity, with 5.2% of adults living in households that sometimes or often didn’t have enough to eat in the previous week. Minnesota, Montana, North Dakota, and Colorado also had relatively low rates of food insecurity.

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People 25 to 39 have highest rates of food insecurity

In terms of food insecurity by age, those 25-39 have the highest rates of hunger, with 13.8% reporting they sometimes or often lack enough food to eat, according to a MagnifyMoney analysis of data from the Census Bureau Household Pulse Survey from Sept. 2-14. The next highest group of food insecure people by age was adults between the ages of 40 and 54, with 12.8% not having enough to eat sometimes or often.

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Food insecurity is most prevalent among Black Americans

Nearly 19% of Black Americans sometimes or frequently don’t have enough to eat, according to a MagnifyMoney analysis of data from the Census Bureau Household Pulse Survey from Sept. 2-14. That group was followed by Latinos, of which 17.6% are food insecure.

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Low education increases risk of food insecurity

A MagnifyMoney analysis of data from the Census Bureau Household Pulse Survey from Sept. 2-14 found that the more education you have completed, the less likely you are to be food insecure. Around one in four people without a high school degree don’t always have enough to eat, compared with 13.9% of high school graduates, 10.8% of people with some college, and 3.4% of people who’ve earned a bachelor’s degree.

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Borrowing money might be a sign of food insecurity

In its analysis of data from the Census Bureau Household Pulse Survey, MagnifyMoney found that nearly four in 10 people who recently borrowed money from loved ones to meet spending needs didn’t have enough to eat. If someone asks you to loan them some money, it might be a sign that they could use more food.

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WIC provides monthly benefits

Around 6.4 million people received monthly benefits from the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) in the first half of 2019, the most recent period for which data is available. The program is dedicated to providing healthy food to low-income needy moms, as well as children up through 5, “who are at nutritional risk.”

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Counties face high food insecurity rates

A Nov. 24 story from National Geographic reports that 585 counties were expected to have food insecurity rates above 20% this year. Mississippi’s Jefferson County was projected to have the highest food insecurity rate of all counties at 37%.

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Majority Black counties may be highly food insecure

The pandemic has had a disproportionate effect on minority communities. As a result, experts estimate that around 80% of majority Black counties are highly food insecure this year.

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SNAP recipients typically receive $125 per month

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), sometimes called food stamps, provides an average of $125 per month per participant. That’s about $1.39 per meal. Research from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has found that about half of SNAP recipients still face food insecurity.

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One month can make a difference in food insecurity

Many families are just one “bad month” away from becoming food insecure, according to Feeding America. An emergency expense, like a car repair or medical bill, or a job loss can put a family in the tough position of choosing between groceries and paying for other essential needs.

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Almost half of those using food banks in 2020 did so for the first time

Feeding America saw a 60% increase in people relying on food banks this year, with roughly four of every 10 people who’ve used food banks during the coronavirus pandemic doing so for the first time. The AP found that Feeding America distributed close to 57% more food in the third quarter of 2020 than that of 2019.

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More kids rely on schools for lunch

The National School Lunch Program served free or low-cost lunches to 29.4 million children every day in 2019. Free lunches are distributed to children living in households at or below 130% of the poverty level; reduced-price lunches are available to those with incomes ranching from 130% to 185% of the poverty level.

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Scools also provide free breakfast to kids

In 2019, 14.7 million children participated in the School Breakfast Program. The initiative helps reduce food insecurity by providing free or low-cost breakfast to students.  COVID-19-related school closures posed a significant barrier to breakfast and lunch programs for children; to adapt, the USDA has worked with states to establish pick-up locations so students could still have access to reduced-cost and free meals.

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Food insecurity is connected to a higher BMI

A 2015 study by the CDC found that people who experienced food insecurity were more likely to have an increase in their body mass index (BMI). The researchers also suggested that portion control and budgeting skills may be key to helping people with food insecurity manage their weight.

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Food insecurity is common among college students

The rates of food insecurity among college students may be anywhere from 20% to more than 50%, according to various studies conducted between 2009 and 2019. Declining resources for students, exclusion from SNAP, and limited part-time job opportunities may all contribute to hunger on college campuses.

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Complex family situations may increase risk of food insecurity

Data from the Current Population Survey Food Security Supplement suggests that children in “complex family households” are at a higher risk of food insecurity than their counterparts in a traditional family with two married parents. It also showed that kids may be more vulnerable if they live with a single mom, rather than married biological parents or stepparents.

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Pet owners are less likely to be food insecure

People who own pets are less likely to be food insecure than non-animal owners, according to a 2019 survey from the University of Pittsburgh. The researchers say that the responsibility of caring for a pet may motivate owners to keep their pantries stocked for themselves and their four-legged friends.

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Food insecurity can also affect pets

Pet food insecurity is a problem among low-income families in the United States, and may exacerbate hunger among people. In a 2017 survey of food bank workers, 75% of respondents said they believed food bank users were likely to share their own food with pets if they didn’t have anything else to feed their furry companions.

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Unemployment benefits reduce risk of food insecurity

A 2020 study on government benefits and food insecurity during the coronavirus crisis has found that the $600 per week federal unemployment insurance was linked to a 4.4 percentage point reduction in food insecurity. The benefits helped people who recently lost their jobs continue to put food on their tables.

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Unemployment exacerbates food insecurity

Around 31% of households earning less than $75,000 who experienced unemployment at any point during the pandemic became food insecure, according to a July 2020 study from the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI). A third of households also reported having less food to eat due to the financial impact of unemployment.

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Childhood hunger correlates with less success later on

Experiencing hunger as a child can make a person less successful in the workforce once an adult, per a Feeding America report. It says that childhood food insecurity can impact a person’s physical, emotional, social, and mental abilities to perform on the job.

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Early childhood hunger damages learning skills

Experiencing hunger very early in life can reduce a person’s ability to learn, writes Feeding America. More specifically, chronic undernutrition before 3 years of age reduces a person’s ability to learn quickly and take in a lot of information due to changes in the brain and central nervous system.

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Urban gardens help reduce food insecurity

A 2016 study conducted by the University of California and Santa Clara University found that people who maintained urban gardens ate more veggies and experienced less food insecurity than the general population. Home gardeners also shaved an average of $92 off their monthly food bills by growing their own food.

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More than 5 million seniors face food insecurity

Food insecurity affects about 7.3% of seniors, or a total of 5.3 million people in that age group, according to Feeding America data from 2018. The report noted that seniors have been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus, and additional numbers of older adults may have a difficult time accessing healthy food amid lockdowns.

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Food banks are in high demand

Demand for services has spiked at food banks during the pandemic. Representatives at around four in five food banks across the country say they’re now helping more people than in 2019, Feeding America reports.

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Number of food banks has grown in recent decades

Food banks have become much more widely available in the United States in recent decades than they were in the past. While there were just a couple of dozen food banks nationwide in 1980, there are now more than 200, according to Move for Hunger, providing food to tens of thousands of organizations.

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As many as 25% of veterans face food insecurity

Food insecurity is relatively common among those who have served our country. While estimates of hunger among veterans vary, some studies estimate that it may affect nearly a quarter of all veterans in the United States.

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Certain veterans are more vulnerable to food insecurity

Certain subgroups of veterans face higher rates of food insecurity. One January 2020 study found food insecurity affects 28% of female veterans, 35% of former military members who have serious mental health conditions, and 49% of vets who are or have been homeless.

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Disabilities make people more vulnerable to food insecurity

People with disabilities face higher rates of hunger than the general population. A report from Syracuse University found that 31.8% of households coping with food insecurity had an adult with a disability.

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LGBTQ+ adults have high rates of food insecurity

Food insecurity affects an estimated 27% of LGBTQ+ adults, the Oregon Food Bank reported in 2019. One reason for the higher rates of food insecurity is the discrimination that LGBTQ+ people face when trying to get a job, access health care, or find housing.

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LGBTQ+ people of color have double the risk of hunger

Food insecurity is highly prevalent among LGBTQ people of color in the United States. Members of this community have double the risk of hunger as the general population, according to the Oregon Food Bank.

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Food insecurity is worse in rural areas

Some 2.3 million families in rural areas experience hunger in America, notes Feeding America. While 63% of all U.S. counties are rural, 87% of counties with extremely high rates of food insecurity are rural.

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Gender discrimination increases food insecurity among women

Gender discrimination can make women more vulnerable to food insecurity. Nearly 29% of households led by a single woman face food insecurity, compared with 15.4% of households headed by a single man, according to a 2019 report from the USDA.

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Food insecurity can make domestic violence more likely

Data collected by the California Women’s Health Survey over the course of six years (released in 2015) showed an association between food insecurity and domestic violence. Researchers found that women with severe food insecurity had higher rates of intimate partner violence—a trend that was especially true among African American women.

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Senior women are more food insecure than senior men

Women face higher odds of food insecurity once they reach 60 compared with men. Feeding America reports that 60.1% of food insecure seniors are women.

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50% of low-income parents are forced to shrink kids’ meals

Nearly half of low-income parents say they don’t have enough money to feed their families every month. Around 25% of low-income parents have needed to shrink the size of meals for their children due to financial difficulties at home, per No Kid Hungry.

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Teachers use their own funds to feed students

Nearly six in 10 teachers say they regularly pay for food for students from food insecure households, according to No Kid Hungry. On average, educators spend $300 out of pocket to help feed their students.

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The US won’t solve hunger until 2034

Based on recent rates of food insecurity across the nation, the United States is still more than a decade away from ending hunger. Bread for the World estimates that the earliest hunger could end in the country is 2034.

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Curbing food waste helps reduce hunger

Around 72 billion pounds of perfectly edible food gets wasted each year in the United States. Feeding America helps redirect some of this food to families facing food insecurity to help reduce hunger.

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There’s a difference between food banks and pantries

The terms “food bank” and “food pantry” are often used interchangeably, but they actually refer to different types of organizations. A food bank is a nonprofit organization that collects and stores large amounts of food to distribute to communities. A food pantry, on the other hand, is a place where needy families can go to pick up free food in their towns or cities.

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It’s better to donate money than food to pantries

While it’s tempting to drop off a bag of groceries at your local food bank or pantry, giving money is often a better way of showing support. The money allows these organizations to buy food at bulk rates that the average retail customer can’t get, thus helping the dollars go farther.

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Two-thirds of food banks need volunteers now

Volunteer rates are down during the coronavirus pandemic. As a result, around two-thirds of food banks that are part of the Feeding America network are looking for volunteers. People willing to help can look up local food banks and pantries to find out where help is needed most.

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